Update on the Nym Wars – An Explanation of the Pseudonym Wars
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The Nym Wars (nym for “pseudoNYM” and wars for, well, “wars”, and pronounced ‘nimwars’) don’t appear to be going away any time soon. The issue at the heart of the NymWars is whether or not people should be allowed to mask their true identity when posting on the Internet by using, well, a pseudonym. Google says “no”, and has taken a firm stance with their Google Plus service, leading to a lot of gnashing of teeth, and pundit pontificating.

On the ‘other side’ are those who want to be able to use pen names on the Internet, for a myriad of reasons. Sure, cyber criminals use pseudonyms, and so do trolls who post comments to blogs and in forums. And it is these people whom Google is protecting themselves – and their users – against. And the same is true of Facebook, who also requires a real name (although with Facebook it’s a bit easier to spoof a name when signing up, as long as it sounds real, but then again, Facebook can’t connect all of the dots in your life to come up with a full profile of the real you like Google can – yet).


But there are also lots of people with legitimate and real reasons to use a pseudonym online, from the straight-forward business case of “this is the name under which I’ve always written and how my readers know me” to the complicated “My ex will beat me to a pulp if they find me, I can’t post on the Internet using my real name.”

Explains the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), who opposes the “rean name” requirement, “There are myriad reasons why an individual may feel safer identifying under a name other than their birth name. Teenagers who identify as members of the LGBT community, for example, are regularly harassed online and may prefer to identify online using a pseudonym. Individuals whose spouses or partners work for the government or are well known often wish to conceal aspects of their own lifestyle and may feel more comfortable operating under a different name online. Survivors of domestic abuse who need not to be found by their abusers may wish to alter their name in whole or in part. And anyone with unpopular or dissenting political opinions may choose not to risk their livelihood by identifying with a pseudonym.”

But here’s the thing – as Joseph Smarr, a member of the technical staff at Google and, ironically, formerly CTO at Plaxo, explains, Google has some good technical reasons for not allowing pseudonyms, as well.

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“It’s not just enough to offer the ability to post under a pseudonymous identifier,” explains Smarr. “If you’re going to make the commitment that we’re not going to out your real identity, that actually takes a lot of work, right? Especially if you’re using your real account to log in, and then posting under a pseudonym. And so we feel a real responsibility that if we’re gonna make the claim to people, “it’s safe, you’re not gonna get outed”, that we really think through the architecture end to end and make sure that there aren’t any loopholes or gotchas where all of a sudden you get outed. And that’s actually a hard thing to do in software… we don’t want to do it wrong so we’d rather wait until we get it right.”

In an even more interesting bit of irony, particularly with Google Plus lined up as a direct competitor to Facebook, Google CEO Eric Schmidt himself said, just last year, that “…the best example of an identity-management service today that’s reasonably reliable is Facebook.”

So there you have it: the Nym Wars are about whether or not you must use your real name when posting on the Internet via a given service (such as Google Plus or Facebook), and whether that’s “right”.

 

There are plenty of people who applaud Google and Facebook’s position, and plenty who decry it.

Of course, you could always choose to not use a service that doesn’t do it the way you like it.

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One thought on “Update on the Nym Wars – An Explanation of the Pseudonym Wars
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  1. This issue will run and run. The big companies can’t even find a way of stopping spam, let alone more sinister stuff like viruses, worms etc. There seems no way to reply to an originator or simply press a report button that takes out an offending computer which won’t work as hackers will simply change computers. The people I feel sorry for are those who are in need of protection, authors and those who share a computer and use the same machine for various activites. A couple I know share a computer, but it only recognises her Facebook sign in. He has given up now.

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